When a new baby arrives in a family, the role of the grandparents varies according to a number of factors, one of the most important being the distance between the parents’ home and the grandparents. The other important factors include:
- The difficulty or ease of the birth
- The presence of other children in the home
- The father’s ability to take parental leave to help out
- The new baby’s health and disposition
- The economic situation of the parents
- The personalities of the parents
- The role of the baby’s other grandparents
Even for the most rapturous of parents, a new baby is unbelievably demanding. If infants are breastfeeding, it is not unusual for them to want the breast every two-and-a-half hours. Added to feeding, babies must be changed, washed and held. Then there are the normal household chores.
Some believe that mothers are biologically programmed to respond to a baby’s cry, which means that a crying baby is incredibly wearing on a mother’s nerves. Even the most placid mother can easily fall apart. Grandparents can be key factors in seeing that does not happen, by helping in a variety of ways. If they are invited to stay with the family, they should strive to be perfect house guests as well as helping hands.
Helping With the Baby
The parents may need help actually taking care of the baby. One would think that would be the favorite job of most grandparents, but many find it stressful.
Especially in the case of a first grandchild, grandparents may feel out of practice and unsure of themselves. These feelings are perfectly normal and should go away as you settle into your role. Grandparents who feel really unsure should sign up for a grandparenting class, but that should be done before the baby's birth if at all possible.
Parents may need the most help when the baby is fussy. The most important thing to remember with a fussy baby is to remain calm. Babies easily pick up on unease in others. For that reason, a grandparent who is not dealing with all the stresses of a recent delivery can be the best person to calm a fussy baby. The next most important thing is to be sensitive to what works. Here are some strategies to try:
Walking with the baby. Obviously you should do this only if you are physically fit and not too tired, but for some reason walking is one of the most effective ways to calm a crying baby.
Rocking or gentle bouncing. Try a rocking chair or simply swaying back and forth while sitting or standing. Some babies prefer a gentle bounce.
Singing to the baby. It doesn’t seem to matter how gifted you are in the vocalization department, some babies just love to be sung to. Choose a lullaby or any song that is soothing.
Adjusting the baby’s clothing. A baby’s diaper should be changed often, but a wet diaper is seldom the cause of fussiness, especially with the disposable diapers that don’t really feel wet. Sometimes it helps to unwrap the baby or take some clothing off, especially if you live in a warm climate.
Babies and children in general seem to have a natural aversion to clothing. Remember your toddler streaking through the house after a bath? Also, sensitive babies may react to a scratchy tag or a bulky seam.
Feeding the baby. This one is tricky, as colicky babies tend to devour their fists and act as if they are starved. By the same token, they will often take the breast or bottle eagerly, at least for a few minutes, but feeding may make a colicky baby more gassy. If it has been less than two hours since the last feeding, and the baby fed for a normal length of time, hunger is unlikely to be the problem.
Helping with Housework
Most new parents will welcome help with the housework. It is important, however, to observe the style of the household. Some families are meticulous, and some are not.
For Type A housekeepers, observe carefully how things are done and do likewise. If in doubt, ask. Type B housekeepers, on the other hand, probably do not want to be bothered with questions about which cleaner to use.
It’s very important, no matter the type of household, that you never suggest through words or actions that their housekeeping is less than perfect. A simple statement such as “This grout is really stained” may be taken as a reflection on her housekeeping by an overtired young mother. It’s best to clean without comment. These observations go double if you are a mother-in-law helping out a daughter-in-law.
Getting a baby in and out of a car can be exhausting for a new mother, so an offer to run errands will probably be welcomed. Buying groceries, dropping off dry cleaning, picking up prescriptions and having the car cleaned or serviced are just some of the errands that grandparents can help with. Alternatively, offer to babysit while mom gets out of the house.
Being the Photographer
Most new parents today are avid photographers, but sometimes they are going to be too tired to raise the camera. A grandparent who can take good pictures of grandchildren is a blessing. If you are allowed to photograph the baby in the hospital, be especially sensitive to the needs of the mother and of the hospital staff. The grandparents can also help with downloading and organizing photos, as well as having prints made and sending photos via mail or email to friends and family. Just be sure that the parents approve the pictures that you send out. The same goes for pictures on Facebook or other social media. Posting unflattering pictures of others is a Facebook no-no that can get you into hot water.
Providing an Ear and a Shoulder
New parents occasionally need someone to listen to their troubles and a shoulder to lean on. Grandparents can provide both. Just remember to give advice only when it is solicited and to make allowances for slightly erratic behavior. Grandparents can also be on the alert for signs of the baby blues or postpartum depression.
For all your support, your reward will be a stronger relationship with your children and a lasting bond with your grandchild.
If You're Not Asked to Visit
Occasionally new parents choose to exclude others during the first few weeks of a baby's lives. Grandparents who are excluded from visiting a newborn grandchild may be hurt, but they should try hard to understand the parents' viewpoint. They will have their chance to bond with their grandchild.